Valeria Uribe
Director General
Pan American Development Foundation (PADF)
/
Expert Contributor

Address the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

By Valeria Uribe | Tue, 12/21/2021 - 08:56

Globally, STEM education is in the news and is often linked to a country’s workforce needs or as a marker of educational success. But what exactly is it? STEM is an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math but it goes beyond these subjects to represent an approach that focuses on creativity, problem-solving and collaborative learning. The STEM educational experience ensures students, especially girls, develop curiosity about the world as well as the knowledge and practical skills needed for success in the 21st century.

Since 1990, employment in STEM occupations has grown by 79 percent — increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

This is not a phenomenon that is unique to the US. It is a recurring trend around the world. In Mexico, the need for STEM skills is vital, with nearly 30 percent of Mexican employers declaring that they have difficulty finding workers in STEM fields, according to Vision STEM. Additionally, this group says that about 78 percent of young people in Mexico are not interested in studying science. Not only is there great demand, but there is a serious shortage of STEM workers in Mexico as well.

And while STEM education is important for both students and employers in the practical sense of finding or filling jobs, it is vitally important for countries (and the world) to cultivate a generation of students with the skills needed to solve the most pressing challenges we experience in the modern world.

Why focus on STEM?

  • STEM skills are not only a necessity but are also worth the investment. They are particularly important for women who often serve as role models to the children in their households and communities. STEM careers help women earn salaries that can help break the intergenerational poverty cycle.
  • STEM builds creativity and real-world problem-solving skills, which can help our country overcome a serious skills gap. Investing inclusively and incorporating a gender perspective in STEM education for marginalized populations and women contributes to reducing inequality.
  • STEM careers typically offer prestige and a higher salary. STEM workers tend to get paid significantly more compared to employees in other fields. In the US, for instance, STEM workers with a college degree get paid nearly 36 percent more than non-STEM workers with the same level of education. The potential economic benefits from smart and substantial investments in STEM education and careers in Mexico are myriad.
  • The booming technology sector has spawned a great need for innovators, engineers, and scientists. As the global tech sector continues to grow, traditional manual labor positions are becoming increasingly replaced by jobs that require STEM skills. 
  • STEM education increases a child's self-esteem.
  • STEM education promotes teamwork, analysis, reflection, innovation, and critical thinking.
  • STEM helps students to develop project, time, and relationship management skills.
  • Due to this unprecedented pandemic, technology skills are in high demand and the importance of STEM skills have become ever more apparent.

The Gender Gap in STEM

According to UNESCO, the potential for increased school dropout rates disproportionately affects adolescent girls, further entrenching gender gaps in education and leading to an increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, and early as well as forced marriages.

There is a need to address the gender gap in STEM fields. PISA is the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment and measures the ability of 15-year-olds to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. According to PISA, globally girls who perform substantially worse than boys in both math and science consistently report less interest in STEM careers. Mexico has one of the greatest gender gaps, according to the OECD, with only 8 percent of women choosing to work in STEM careers, compared to 27 percent of men. The country’s percentage of top-performing girls in mathematics and science is among the lowest of all the PISA countries.

A study carried out by the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences at the London School of Economics (LSE) has shown that the lack of female role models in the STEM field is one of the main reasons for young girls' lack of interest in STEM subjects and careers from the age of 15. This study reveals that, despite the widespread interest in STEM topics among girls between the ages of 11 and 12, it declines markedly after 15, almost irreversibly.

We need to close the gender gap in STEM by inspiring the next generation of girls in science. We need to train teachers and parents, expose our students to female role models, and provide new opportunities for girls, inspiring them to pursue their dreams. Giving girls real-life examples of women in STEM would help them to model themselves after those successful women.

There is a strong demand for people trained in STEM areas. It is proven that an increase in female scientists has positive consequences, such as the diversity of research approaches, while also providing women with better salaries and greater flexibility with options to work remotely or to work from home. Women trained in STEM are innovators, and can start their own businesses. The benefits of investing in STEM, and particularly investing to address the gender gap will reap great economic and social benefits for all of us. 

Therefore, companies, schools, universities, families, and civil organizations – all of us – have a duty to promote an interest in STEM among the young people in our lives, particularly girls. We must make it easier for our youth to become interested in STEM careers. We can do so by inspiring them through role models as well as pledging our support to develop programs and practical actions by which girls can actively participate in STEM activities, and access mentors to help them learn about STEM careers.

At PADF we are committed to promoting STEM in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our STEM teams work with local organizations to implement our STEM Americas initiative throughout the region. Our work helps teachers master the principles of STEM education so they can in turn make their classrooms STEM-friendly by adopting new technologies and techniques that promote innovation, problem-solving and collaborative learning.

We support our partners in organizing STEM fairs where students participate in competitions or grand challenges, working together to solve real-world problems. An initiative that we launched with the support of Boeing introduced aerospace concepts in classrooms in different countries, including Mexico. PADF partners in Bolivia and Colombia worked together to create a hands-on STEM activity that launched weather balloons into the Earth’s stratosphere, so students could conduct experiments using atmospheric data. STEM programs contribute to the overall educational development of students, preparing them to take on the challenges of our complex world.

To learn more, please join our initiative at

https://www.padf.org/education/education-story3/

Photo by:   Valeria Uribe